As you probably know if you read this blog, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have taken to the streets in frustration over the past week after President Viktor Yanukovich reversed course and decided not to sign an association agreement with the European Union. Meanwhile, thousands of Thais ostensibly aggravated by an amnesty bill that might have opened the door to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s return have swarmed and occupied several government ministries and are now openly demanding that the army oust the current prime minister.
I’m not going to try to give accounts of these events, which are still growing and morphing, or their causes, which are multifaceted and inevitably ambiguous. Instead, I’d like to underscore what the protests in both countries show us again about how hard it is to convert popular action into political change.
Cheering on the rallies in Kiev earlier today, writer Anne Applebaum tweeted:
Tens of thousands on streets of Kiev: Now they must figure out how to channel that energy into real institutional and legal change—
Anne Applebaum (@anneapplebaum) December 01, 2013
She’s right, of course. The problem for the tens of thousands in Ukraine’s and Thailand’s streets is that this is a very hard task. Political power is an amorphous thing, and inertia is its most prevalent form. “Levers of power” is just a metaphor, but that’s the point. The absence of something tangible for protesters to seize and push and wield makes it surprisingly difficult for them to convert their physical mass and emotional energy into the changes in rules and procedures and personnel they usually seek. Protesters can fill squares and topple statues and even swarm the buildings where laws are made, but the social practice of government does not allow them to pick up pen and paper and rewrite the rules while they’re there. When protesters try to do something like that, they are usually ignored or waited out or driven back with violence.
To convert their apparent power into significant political change, protesters usually have to find a way to convince some people on the inside to listen—to rewire the system on their behalf, or to invite their representatives into the control room. In Thailand, anti-government protesters are directing their appeals at military leaders, but so far those leaders aren’t heeding the call. In Ukraine, boxer-cum-presidential hopeful Vladimir Klitschko has called on President Yanukovich to resign, but so far Yanukovich isn’t budging.
Even when they seem to heed the crowd’s call, those insiders have an uncanny knack for bending the arc of politics back toward the status quo ante. In Egypt in 2011, protesters got the military to force Hosni Mubarak from office after decades in power, but the military-led transition that ensued has somehow landed that process not far from where it started.
I don’t mean to be a downer—to suggest that protesters are powerless, or that we can or should measure the value of activism solely by the change it immediately does or does not produce. In a way, you could read this reminder as a backhanded compliment to the activists who do manage to produce significant and durable change. As Frederick Douglass famously suggested, mass activism may not be sufficient to produce institutional change, but it is almost always necessary.
It’s also not clear that the effervescence of protest power is inherently a bad thing. In the case of Thailand, people who value democracy should probably be cheering the failure of a reactionary, elitist movement that’s trying to topple an elected and still reasonably popular government. While Yanukovich’s democratic credentials are shakier, I’m sure there are many Ukrainians who feel the same way about any effort to force their president from office before his term expires. Maybe this tendency toward inertia in politics is the inevitable output of the contraptions we build and task with reconciling our heterogeneous desires for progress and our shared fear of disorder.